What's left out of many training programs is immersive learning, which enables trainees to practice what they've learned.

At first it was just a feeling that maybe the e-learning modules the instructional designer had been creating weren't enough to improve employee performance. She tried different strategies in an effort to find the missing link between content and behavior change. She dabbled, or maybe invested heavily, in social learning, knowledge management, mobile learning, and performance support. She even experimented with gamification.

Still, it seemed like something was missing.

In the day-to-day life of training professionals, we concern ourselves with meeting the learning and development needs of the business: We deliver e-learning to satisfy compliance requirements, identify skills gaps and knowledge gaps, and attempt to fill them with more content, support, and resources to help improve employee performance. We do this because improved employee performance will mean improved business performance.

However, what really improves performance is practice. Not just practice, either; practice with feedback. We know that we learn from experience, we learn from mistakes. Yet, if you look at your organization's employee training programs, what percentage of the agenda is content-based, and how much of it is practice?

The content we provide should serve as a roadmap for best practices, but we are often providing employees with the information they need to improve without providing them the opportunity to apply that newly gained knowledge. We're telling employees how to swim, then sending them out to sink, hoping they somehow can use the information we've provided to them to make it to shore.

We hope, because we know something is missing from our training events. What's missing is practice. What we need is immersive learning.

A true learning organization

Almost 25 years ago, Peter Senge coined the term "learning organization" to describe organizations that support and facilitate the learning of their members and that are continuously transforming themselves. There are five main characteristics that learning organizations exhibit:

  • systems thinking—considering the performance of an organization as a whole and a sum of all of its parts
  • personal mastery—individual learning and improvement as an explicit value and requirement
  • mental models—assumptions of individuals and organizations must be able to be challenged
  • shared vision—creating a shared vision and common identity allows organizations to focus learning to achieve a common goal
  • team learning—sharing the sum of individual learning to improve organizational performance, which manifests in dialogue, discussion, reflection, and knowledge-sharing systems.

Not surprisingly, organizations struggle to become learning organizations because it is not the purpose of the organization to be learning. Organizations are founded for a purpose and, most often, that purpose is not to build a learning culture or support employee growth or get really good at challenging assumptions. Most organizations have two objectives: Make the world better or change it in some way; and make money or at least don't lose money. It's only when those two objectives are being met that organizations will look at training and development as a competitive advantage.

Let's assume your organization isn't yet a learning organization by Senge's definition. Let's also assume that your organization is doing a pretty good job at meeting its two objectives (purpose and money). The challenge for training and development professionals is to move your organization forward in better meeting those objectives and move along the path to becoming a learning organization. The common denominator between learning objectives and business objectives is improved performance.

Immerse yourself

In some careers, immersive learning is common because the consequences of poor performance can have serious or fatal results. For example, elaborate simulations are designed for emergency responders so that they can refine their response to a real emergency. Why is the same approach not taken with business skills?

Immersive learning is practice in context with realistic feedback. Fire drills, flight simulators, and World of Warcraft are other examples of its use. It's no mystery that the best way to get better at something is to practice doing it, but we often look at practice as something associated with leisure activities, such as playing a sport or an instrument.

Training is what is supposed to prepare employees to be better, and yet training professionals often stop after providing content. When you're choking, do you want a person who has read a manual on the Heimlich maneuver or one who has practiced it in a CPR certification class? When you are paying sales reps to sell your product, do you want reps who have read about your customers or reps who have had a chance to talk to and understand your customers' needs and questions?

The risk may be different, but how you approach training and development in your organization can mean the difference between the life and death of your business. Immersive learning design bridges the chasm between content and application, which not only allows employees to learn and fail safely, but also provides the practice and experience opportunities that show them when they have mastered a skill.

To design immersive learning experiences for your organization, use ADDIE—a process model acronym that stands for analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate—as a starting framework for the process. The model also provides opportunities for cultural shifts toward becoming a learning organization.

Analyze

To design realistic practice, you must understand every aspect that affects performance and account for it somehow in your design. Interview all relevant parties involved, observe the context and what affects performance, and account for variables such as differing motivation and personality differences. This is also the critical stage to identify what behavior is rewarded.

If you're trying to improve a skill or behavior that is counter to how an employee is evaluated or compensated, even the best, most realistic practice won't result in improved performance. About 80 percent of the time you spend on immersive design should be dedicated to the analysis phase. Don't underestimate the importance of understanding the core reasons for the behaviors you are seeking to change or improve.

Two opportunities in this phase that should not be missed are identifying the mental models in your organization and employees that need to be challenged, and establishing whether the members of your organization have a shared vision. Answering these questions can provide organizational goals beyond the individual objectives for your immersive design.

Design

Once you have completed your analysis and have the information you need to design practice, you have a multitude of decisions to make regarding how to design the experience. Storyline, characters, theme, and how to provide feedback are all essential to creating a practice environment that allows for practice.

Don't assume that your design needs to be realistic; some situations might necessitate a fantasy theme. An inability to re-create an exact environment that is relevant for a large audience can be distracting. For example, change management training could take place on a spaceship, which will enable employees from different office locations to focus on how they react to and manage change rather than whether the office environment exactly matches theirs.

Make sure that how you are providing feedback aligns with how employees receive feedback on their performance in the real world, so that success metrics transfer from the training program to the work environment.

The design phase is where you can infuse the values of a learning organization. Encourage systems thinking by allowing learners to see a problem from an individual perspective and also from the organizational view. Establish the value of personal mastery of a skill and infuse opportunities for team learning during or as a debrief of the learning experience. Provide context for challenging mental models and present a shared vision as a discussion point for learners to challenge and ultimately embrace.

Develop

After you've made your design decisions, make your technology decisions. Are employees at their desk all day, which means computer-based training makes sense? Is part of the practice context working with a team, which requires online collaboration or in-person teamwork? What tools and technologies are employees already using, and how can those be leveraged as part of the design?

Sometimes it may be necessary to develop a 3D immersive simulation, but often you can create practice by leveraging the tools and technologies already available to your learners. Don't reinvent the wheel, and don't introduce a new technology when you want people to get better at using the ones they already have.

In the development process, you are executing on your design vision. This is an opportunity to provide clarity of objectives and vision of a learning organization, so be careful to develop your immersive learning solution in a way that elevates these goals and doesn't let the technology or execution distract from what's most important.

Implement

Be aware of potential cultural resistance to practice. Practice in its nature implies failure. For some employees, failure is scary and full of risk. Be cognizant of the expectation you're setting. Be clear about whether practice will be focused on getting better by learning from mistakes, or if there will be assessments associated with their performance. If you want people to practice, you need to separate out performance assessment from practice.

If immersive learning is to be successful, it must be rolled out in a way that embraces the values of a learning organization. Emphasis on team learning during implementation can be the differentiator between a successful learning initiative and one that improves the performance of your entire organization.

Evaluate

See how people react, see where people fail, and see where they succeed. Identify those trends to determine if the practice is too hard or too easy. Adjust your design as is appropriate and, as you do, you'll accommodate learners at different skill sets and learning paces.

Realize that you aren't going to roll out one immersive learning solution, and then evolve into a learning organization overnight. Immersive learning is a step in changing the way your organization thinks about training and a component of an organizational culture shift. Identify what was successful and be ready to improve.

The evolution

Reflecting back on Senge's work, immersive learning provides the opportunity to not only bridge the knowing-doing gap, but also move an organization along the continuum to becoming a learning organization. Immersive learning can and should be designed to incorporate systems thinking that considers the whole of an organization and the sum of its parts, while emphasizing personal mastery.

It should provide opportunities to challenge mental models while creating a shared vision of best practices and success to show everyone what "good" looks like. And it is a perfect opportunity for team learning, not only in creating shared experiences that can be debriefed and discussed among learners, but in creating a context of learning for these activities.

Immersive learning is not a magic bullet and immersive design will challenge you to change how you think about and approach design. By shifting your focus from learning objectives to performance improvement, this method can help you bridge your learners from knowing to doing and help your organization evolve into a learning organization. Immersive learning just might be the something that is missing in your training initiatives.


Five Steps to Get Started

Implement immersive learning by following these steps.

Step 1: Identify the organizational problem to solve. Think in terms of what people need to do differently (not just know or think differently). Create performance objectives, not learning objectives. Focus your objectives; too big and you may never get your project off the ground, too small and you may not create enough complexity to allow for varied practice.

Step 2: Analyze. Poke holes in your hypotheses and be ready to be wrong or surprised by what you uncover. Talk to people: stakeholders, learners, customers, managers. Make sure you understand the problem from all sides. Look for the metrics and measure the current state. Set benchmarks for success and ensure those benchmarks are meaningful to all those involved. Answer the question: Is this a training problem?

Step 3: Design for practice. Stick to your focus, knowing that you can expand learning experiences in future iterations. Test your designs with your target learner population and analyze the feedback. Iterate on your designs to refine the experience. Be prepared to make changes. Don’t lose sight of your audience or your objectives when choosing an immersive technology (don’t be blinded by “Ooooh! Shiny!”).

Step 4: Sell your solution. Even great learning experiences can fail when they have bad press or no marketing. Talk in terms of organizational goals, but frame the learning experience for the individual’s benefit.

Step 5: Show your work. Compare training analytics against performance metrics. Identify the gaps and make refinements to close them. Talk the language of the business, and communicate your value in terms that make sense to them. Market your successes and learn from things that aren’t working.

Your organization might not be prepared for the shift in learning philosophy that comes with changing from traditional instructional design to immersive learning design. Be prepared to answer many questions about why and how from executives and management. Tell them that you’re focused on improving organizational performance by designing for practice through immersive learning.

Your learners might resist participating in a learning experience and claim all they need is some information to get better. Be prepared to challenge that assertion. Explain that you’re not interested in what they know, but what they can do. Explain that you want to give them opportunities to practice, not just provide them with resources.

Source: Immersive Learning: Designing for Authentic Practice.